NOAA's decision move from Seattle to Newport Oregon was a "quality of life" choice, Capt. Michele Bullock told the press last summer. She's the amiable commander of NOAA's Pacific Marine Operations Center where the big research ships have been located for 50 years, but not much longer if NOAA has its way.
The evaluation team that chose Newport over Seattle, Port Angeles and Bellingham did so in part based on community resources such as housing, schools, hospitals, theaters, restaurants, and the cost of living; those factors, Capt. Bullock said, that will "make for a pleasant, small town way of life" for the employees. The team found rural Lincoln County, Oregon a better place to live than Seattle and Bellingham, university towns noted for their arts and music.
Since we posted a few stories about the move, we've had mail from NOAA civilian employees who are baffled and angry at the prospect. They have written Crosscut, questioning the quality of the life Capt. Bullock cheerfully predicts for the NOAA work force in a resort town of 10,000 that thrives on tourists in the summer and languishes in the winter. The letters we've seen so far come from civilian employees, most of them highly trained engineers and electronic technicians who maintain NOAA's Pacific research fleet, including the incredibly complex communications and computer systems of these floating science labs.
"We're the guys who keep the ships operating, stem to stern," one of the engineers told Crosscut. "The uniformed Corps comes aboard, we toss them the keys and hope they don't run into anything."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had its beginnings in the early 1800s, when Thomas Jefferson directed the Coast and Geodetic Survey to survey the coast. Only 300 members wear NOAA's dress whites, but the whole agency projects an image of white hats. It administers the National Weather Service, providing the daily forecast that can save your day or your business and help your local TV weather guy seem smarter than he really is. NOAA's in charge of protecting our ocean fisheries, and its civilian scientists know more about the physical and biological nature of the oceans than anyone else on the planet. They're in the forefront of knowledge about drought, air pollution, climate change, and melting of the polar ice cap.
Members of the uniformed NOAA Corps are not supposed to talk to the press about the move to Newport. Neither are the civilian workers for that matter, but they do it anyway. Officially, all media queries are referred to Public Information Officer David Hall in Washington, DC, who isn't answering any questions.
The employees who are quietly in touch with Crosscut worry about the schools in Newport, the scarcity of housing, and the cuts in pay they will face when they move. Federal workers are paid according to the purported cost of living in the region where they're assigned. Seattle ranks high in cost and equivalently high in pay. Newport doesn't. The NOAA workers we heard from expect to lose as much as 7 percent in wages because, according to the federal formula, living's easier in a small town.
No doubt it costs less to live in Lincoln County than in the Seattle area. The U.S. Census Bureau's latest figures showed the median home value in Lincoln County to be about 62 percent of the King County median. However, as in many resort towns, there's a fluctuating scarcity of housing. And the NOAA employees writing Crosscut don't feel good about what they see and hear.
"Overpriced beach front condos," was one description, "then some really plain, really low-class houses, but not much in between. Middle class there is not what we think of as middle class in Seattle or in the suburbs."
NOAA's effect on housing seems certain to be dramatic. Dropping 175 new households into Lincoln County is, numerically speaking, like 7,169 new families arriving in King County and demanding homes and schools.
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